Sentinel Staff Writer
February 13, 2008
Diana Miller was an athlete, caregiver, friend and prankster.
The 63-year-old woman's death July 21, 2006, is regarded as the first-ever murder in The Villages, and it left a hole in the lives of her husband, golf partners and softball teammates in the active retirement community.
"It was like our hearts were ripped out," said Lorrie Travis, recalling her friend's death.
The testimony of Miller's friends made her husband cry Tuesday but failed to change the dull expression of Renaldo McGirth, 19, the Marion County man who could be sentenced to death in her slaying.
State Attorney Brad King and Assistant State Attorney Anthony Tatti asked Diana Miller's friends for remembrances as they argued for a death sentence for McGirth, who was found guilty last week of first-degree murder.
They did not call James Miller to testify.
The 70-year-old man was shot in the head but survived the armed robbery and attacks that left his wife dead. He borrowed tissues from his sister to dab at tears Tuesday while his wife's friends consoled him with gentle pats on his shoulders.
He would not speak with reporters.
Diana Miller's 40-year-old daughter, Sheila, called "morally culpable" by prosecutors, was absent from the proceedings that require jurors to recommend death or life without parole for McGirth. He knew Sheila Miller through drug deals, according to Marion County sheriff's detectives.
Defense lawyer Candace Hawthorne contends Sheila Miller put McGirth and two accomplices up to the robbery and shootings because, as the retired Michigan couple's only child and heir, she would have inherited $750,000.
Sheila Miller was never criminally charged, however.
Prosecutors made their case for the death penalty with testimony from Diana Miller's aunt, three friends, a former medical examiner and Theodore Houston, one of McGirth's alleged accomplices.
Diana Miller's friends said the retired accountant for Ford embraced The Villages' active lifestyle, playing golf twice a week, competing in softball leagues and organizing fundraisers for an Alzheimer's charity.
The woman was the catcher on The Village Vixens, a women's softball team; she organized golf vacations for her friends; and she used her computer skills to print funny fliers featuring their faces.
"She kept everybody in stitches," said Lee Hancock, who met Miller on the softball diamond.
The friends, some of whom knew her in Michigan, also described Diana Miller as a devoted and caring wife and a good-natured and broad-shouldered soul who never asked anything in return for her kindness.
Though an autopsy revealed a benign tumor on her uterus, Diana Miller was in good health and probably would have survived the gunshot wound to her chest if she had received medical attention, Dr. Julia Martin testified.
The death blow was the second shot, to her head, Martin said.
Houston, who testified in red-and-white striped jail togs and leg shackles, said that McGirth had chastised him for fetching the wounded woman some water and a blanket as she lay bleeding on the floor.
The jury of eight women and four men decided last week that McGirth was guilty of first-degree murder with a firearm, attempted first-degree murder, armed robbery and felony fleeing in Diana Miller's killing.
One accomplice, Jarrord Roberts, 21, was found guilty of manslaughter, attempted manslaughter and armed robbery, charges that could put him in prison for life but that made him ineligible for the death penalty.
On the morning he was to testify, Houston, 18, backed out of an agreement with prosecutors and demanded his own trial, thinking he can convince a jury that he participated in the crime out of fear of McGirth.
Houston, offered a sentence of no more than 40 years in prison, faces life if he is convicted of first-degree murder. Because he was a minor, he is not eligible for the death penalty. The trial's penalty phase is set to resume today with defense witnesses painting a kinder side of McGirth, whose juvenile record includes a felony sexual assault.
Stephen Hudak can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 352-742-5930.